Monsanto in Haiti

Part 1 of 4

Posted March 30, 2011

Last Spring, the agribusiness Monsanto announced it was making a $4 million gift of seeds “to support the reconstruction effort” in Haiti. The “gift” – reportedly hybrid maize and vegetable seeds – was slated to total 505 tons of seed over 12 months.

Six months after the alleged distribution of the first delivery of Monsanto seeds. Haiti Grassroots Watch decided to follow up on the controversial donation, especially of the maize hybrid seed.

•    Why were the seeds accepted by government officials?

•    Where were the seeds distributed?

•    Did the farmers – who were slated to receive the seed for only 10 percent of the real cost – like the seed? Did they understand what “hybrid” means as far as using the seed’s “offspring”?

•    Were and are proper precautions being taken regarding the seeds, which are coated with potentially poisonous fungicides and pesticides?

•    Will the rest of the “gift” be distributed, or has it been already?

•    Does it appear likely that Haitian farmers could become dependent on highly subsidized Monsanto or other hybrid seeds, only to be slammed the full price in a few years, the way US homebuyers were hit with “exploding mortgages?”

Part 1 - Background to the “gift”

The first shipment – 60 tons of seed – arrived in early May, and according to Monsanto, a second shipment of 70 tons was to have arrived sometime shortly thereafter.


Monsanto's media release.

Not surprisingly, the “gift” caused controversy in Haiti and abroad due to Monsanto’s history.

Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company and is one of the world’s largest pesticide companies. The behemoth dominates world proprietary seed market, a market worth almost $32 billion in 2010, up 10 percent from the previous year.

The agribusiness giant is renowned for its aggressive marketing and sometimes-illegal maneuvers, which include creating a potential worldwide monopoly by buying up all competitors, bribes, infiltration of farmers’ associations through the use of mercenaries and “ruthless legal battles” including lawsuits against farmers. The company is currently being investigated in seven US states for potentially locking out competitors.

The former manufacturer of Agent Orange is also the world’s leading producer of genetically modified organisms or “GMOs.” Because of its aggressive marketing of GMO seeds and other products, Monsanto has earned the ire of tens of thousands of farmers, including organic farmers and others working for food safety, is the target of many campaigns, like “Millions Against Monsanto,” Via Campesina’s international anti-multinational day, and of a damning documentary – The World According to Monsanto – that builds a strong case against Monsanto for it actions worldwide [Watch it here].

In Haiti, a US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded agricultural project accepted the Monsanto “gift.” USAID/WINNER (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources) is a five-year, $126 million US taxpayer-funded agriculture and environment program. But its not managed but just any old consultant… WINNER is run by giant beltway contractor Chemonics International, which in 2010 ranked #51 on the list of top 100 US government contractors, earning over $476 million in contacts that year. USAID/WINNER’s Chief of Party (COP), is not just any old Haitian… it is Jean Robert Estimé. He was Minister of Foreign Affairs under dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and subsequently worked for Chemonics in Africa.

Claiming to have a “farmer-centered approach,” USAID/WINNER works with 200 farmers groups, according to its website, with the approval and collaboration of the Haitian government.

Note – WINNER project work, which – according to its media materials – includes demonstration farms, training, as well as “watershed management plans, strengthen[ing] farmer associations, provid[ing] access to expertise and vital supplies (seeds, fertilizers, credit, tools), and restor[ing] protective tree cover” and which aims to help “people living within targeted watersheds to have improved livelihoods, have reduced threat from flooding, and be invested in sustainable economic growth and environmental protection” is not being discussed in this series. This investigation looks only at the Monsanto seed “gift.” USAID/WINNER refused numerous written and verbal  requests for an interview from journalists at Haiti Grassroots Watch partner AlterPresse.

A necessary “gift”?

Out of the blue, in a May 13 news release, the Monsanto announced: “Haitian farmers, who otherwise may not have had sufficient seeds to plant this season [our emphasis] in their earthquake-ravaged country, are receiving help from a unique public and private partnership.”

Except… Haitian farmers did have enough seed to plant that season, according to several reports.

Monsanto’s “gift” announcement came a full two months after the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) – which has extensive experience in Haitian agriculture development work – released a “rapid seed assessment” report [PDF] for southern Haiti, one of the areas worst-hit by the earthquake. The assessment, circulated to humanitarian and development organizations working in Haiti, and another one whose findings were distributed in June [see Seeding Reconstruction?], both recommended against the importation and distribution of seeds. CRS wrote:

Direct seed distribution should not take place given that seed is available in the local market and farmers’ negative perceptions of external seed. This emergency is not the appropriate time to try to introduce improved varieties on anything more than a small scale for farmer evaluation. [our emphasis]

Nevertheless, in its post-earthquake strategy document, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture (MARDNR) called for massive seed distribution – covering 30 percent of farmers’ needs – for three seasons post-earthquake, and gave its warm approval of the Monsanto “gift,” even though allowing new varieties (the maize and most of the vegetable varieties) onto Haitian soil directly contravenes Haitian law and international conventions.

The MARDNR issued a list of “approved” seed varieties in March. None of the maize varieties on the list are hybrids.

Nevertheless, according to Monsanto, “the Ministry” approved the seeds, writing in an email: “Thank you for Monsanto’s generous offer to donate Vegetable seeds and Hybrid maize seeds to benefit the Haitian farmers.”

The Monsanto seed varieties shipped to Haiti were treated with potentially poisonous fungicides and herbicides, but the Ministry – again, according to Monsanto – also said that the treatments, which include the potentially poisonous and/or cancer-causing Mancozeb, Thiram and Maxim XL, “are used everyday in Haitian agriculture and should pose no  problem.”

USAID/WINNER’s director Estimé was also pleased with the donation.

“Our goal is to reach 10,000 farmers this growing season,” he said in the Monsanto release. "The vegetables and grain these seeds will produce will help feed and provide economic opportunities for farmers, their families and the broader community. Agriculture is key to the long-term recovery."

USAID/WINNER said it would distribute the gift seeds via its farmers’ association-run Boutiques d’Intrants Agricoles or BIA (Agriculture Input Stores), run by the farmers’ associations who are part of the program. The stores typically sell seeds, fertilizer and other products to farmers for ten percent of the actual cost.

Part 1 of 4

Go to Part 2 - What do experts say?

Go to the Seeding Reconstruction series

Go to Seeding Reconstruction or Destruction? summary and the video